Features Twelve Days of Wine
Serving Wine Before Its Time
January 2009

The latest vintage. Itís whatís in the stores, and itís whatís on restaurant wine lists. Sure, a few wineries release older vintages from time to time, and some restaurants (and fewer retailers) have the space to age wines for at least a few years. But for most people in the business of selling wine, space is at a premium. As the next harvest approaches, most winemakers are acutely aware of the wine still in the barrel from previous vintages, and the need to get it in the bottle and out to market to make room for the coming vintage (and if they somehow forget, thereís usually a bank somewhere in the background thatís ready to remind them).

It leaves wine drinkers, and sommeliers, in a bit of a fix as young, austere wines can be hard to enjoy. But before we worry about it, letís first point out that itís still not all that common a problem. Many wines—some say 99% of the wine produced—is meant to be drunk young anyhow. The fresh character that makes many white wines enjoyable will actually fade after a couple of years, so the most recent vintage is usually the one you want. This includes many Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Grigios, and similar Italian indigenous whites. On the red side, Beaujolais springs to mind. There are exceptions in all these categories (a Didier Dageneau Sancerre or Valentini Trebbiano) but there, the price usually serves as a warning sign that the wineís age needs to be considered more carefully.

Nowadays, the list doesnít stop there. Winemakers have any number of tricks—excuse me, techniques—to make their wines a bit more accessible when young. Micro-oxygenation, for example, feeds a tiny stream of oxygen into a wine as it ages in the barrel or tank, softening its tannins. Controlling the temperature of fermentation can encourage aromatic development, so a young wine might not be so closed. There are plenty of Merlots, Shiraz, Cabernets, and so forth that lend themselves to early drinking; winemakers know that most wines are consumed within 48 hours of purchase these days, and that customers wonít return to a wine that seemed too inexpressive in those conditions.

But some feel that such techniques can sacrifice complexity and ageability, like many producers in the three ďBĒs of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Barolo, for starters, but elsewhere, too. If you want to check out an í05 Blason díIssan, or an í04 Brezza Barolo now, how can you make the most of the experience? Hereís four things to keep in mind:

1. Decant. Otherwise used to separate a well-aged wine from its sediments, in a young wine, decanting can introduce oxygen into it, softening the tannins and encouraging aromatics. For a closed young Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet, a vigorous decant—that is to say, really sloshing it about—can do a lot. Decanting for aeration is controversial in some cases. Aldo Sohm, Wine Director at Manhattanís Le Bernardin, notes that he would be very reluctant to decant a red Burgundy this way, preferring to rely on the right glassware so the wine can develop there without being rushed along. Ideally, heíd open the bottle a few hours before service and let it breathe in the bottle; he says itís smoother, and gentler for the wine.

Decanting is not just for reds; many whites can profit as well, especially Chardonnays and higher-end, dry Rieslings—Iím lookiní at you, Alsace. You can even decant a young Champagne this way, either a vintage or non-vintage wine that seems too tight. Just decant gently, letting the Champagne slide down the edge of the decanter, so it doesnít lose too much of its effervescence.

2. Glassware. The right glass gives the wine a chance to grow up a bit. For fuller reds, this usually means a large, tulip-shaped glass, while a wider bowl works well for Pinot Noirs and other lighter, aromatic reds. This is true for older wines as well, but young wines need the help more. Scared to decant that Champagne? Well, then get a set of Champagne glasses that split the difference between that tall, narrow flute and the tulip of a white wine glass, so thereís a bit more surface area of bubbly exposed to air and more aromatics can escape.

3. Temperature. Americans often drink their red wines a little too warm, but hereís a case where it can do some good. Cooler wine means less volatility, and therefore, less aromatic molecules escaping into the air and from there, into our nostrils. Practice with care, though: alcohol, too, likes to take flight when it gets a little warmth, so too much can make a wine a bit prickly on the nose, and just a few degrees can make a big difference. Tannins and acidity are also more pronounced in cellar temperature wine, so a little warm up can soften things on the palate, too. Reserve this technique for burly reds like Bordeauxs, Syrahs, and so forth.

4. Food. The right pairing can make all the difference. Elsewhere on this site, Neil McCallum, winemaker at Dry River in Martinborough, New Zealand, says that the proteins in a food can bond with a wineís phenolics, pulling back the curtain on the wineís fruit flavors in lieu of cellaring, a technique also advocated by Mr. Sohm. The latter says that itís not necessarily as easy as it sounds, but thatís what a sommelierís there for, after all.